Metabolic Health As Counterculture
(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) It's hard to just blurt it out there, for reasons I'll explain. But here goes. I was once significantly overweight.
The backstory is an all-too-common one. In short, I grew up in the American food milieu. In the 80s, this meant sweet boxed cereal and skim milk, packaged and frozen meals loaded with sugar, starch and preservatives, refined and processed bread, chips and snacks, candy and cookies, and tons of soda. Not to mention fast food. Those all too potent sensory memories abound from McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Domino’s Pizza, Little Ceaser’s, KFC, Dairy Queen. Wendy’s. Chuck-E-Cheese. (Thinking back, we sure ate a lot of crap pizza.)
Out of nowhere, my family moved to Southeast Asia for a year when I should have been in sixth grade.
It was an awesome, formative year in many ways. In this environment I probably ate more nutritious, whole food than I did any time prior, because we had a hired cook and housekeeper (a relatively inexpensive luxury in Jakarta, which my mother took advantage of). I remember consuming variations of traditional Indonesian curries and stews, rice and noodles adorned with coconut and novel spices, seafood and cooked vegetables, and an abundance of local fresh fruits I had never even heard of before. No doubt we had plenty of soda and junk food within reach as well, but it didn’t predominate to the same extent as back home.
Upon our return to the US, my financially strained single parent returned to the usual inexpensive, convenient fast-food and processed-food staples to keep us fed: pizza upon pizza, McDonald’s, mac n’ cheese (with that unholy orange color), sugary boxed cereals, frozen pot pies, quick pasta with sauce, canned soup.
When I started getting pocket money from babysitting, I used to go to the corner store every day after school to buy the “now with 20% more” packs of peanut M&Ms, which I washed down with a 20 oz Coke. During my freshman year of high school, I felt like a boss because I could buy a frozen Snickers for dessert right inside of the school cafeteria. This is amidst a lifeless public school cafeteria diet of things like tater tots, powdered mashed potatoes, fish sticks, processed meats, and pasta-- who wouldn't want a frozen Snickers?
As cheap entertainment, when hanging out with my teenybopper friends, we’d buy bags of candy, Snapple or soda, ice cream, and yes, slices of pizza. It was a bit early in the gourmet coffee trend, but I remember sampling my first frappucino in one of the rare establishments that offered this delicacy. My diet was further “supplemented” by the frequent sweets and snack foods available at home– cookies, chips, sweetened drinks, ice cream.
Unlike some kids from unstable backgrounds, I also had access to whole foods cooked from scratch. I remember learning how to make things like hamburgers, oatmeal, eggs, and steamed broccoli at a young age and feeling quite proud of it. I remember enjoying roasted chickens, beef stew, pork chops, artichokes, potatoes, peas and carrots, whole fruit and salads. I also wouldn't call my lifestyle sedentary-- not close by today's standards. I played sports, walked and biked around the city of Boston, rollerbladed, ice skated. Though we watched plenty of TV and played some video games, we didn't have computers or the internet in the early 90s, so we probably stayed at home a lot less than kids do today. But the endless processed foods, sweets and fast foods, juggernauts that they are, took sway over my metabolism.
Unsurprisingly, as puberty set in during that first year back in the States, I started to gain significant weight. By eighth grade I was almost as tall as I am now, but thirty pounds heavier. I also developed inflamed, embarrassing cystic acne. Given the tender age and my family difficulties, my self-esteem was in the pits.
My early teen years gave me a window into how anyone could be crushed into utter hopelessness and self-defeating behavior under the mental strain of body image issues. It probably made all the difference that my academics were strong, keeping my self-esteem above water. I made it on scholarship into a prestigious boarding school for the remainder of high school, and eventually landed at an Ivy League college. In these environments I had access to an unparalleled education, top athletic facilities and quality food, and an increasingly diverse group of peers that modeled other ways to eat and live.
Even then, it was no Shangrila-- I also witnessed at close hand peers with serious eating disorders, or those making desperate attempts to "eat healthy" according to the certain norms and finding their mental or physical health falling apart. I had a few misfires myself and had to course-correct various times. Gradually, through my late teens and early twenties, I honed my diet, shifting myself away from processed foods and sugar, widening my palate to include a more diverse array of foods, normalizing my weight, improving my skin.
Though I was in pretty good shape by the time I made it through college, it was only later, when I dove deeper into studying acupuncture and natural medicine, that it really clicked into place and I started to restore my metabolic health--and overall health--on a deeper plane. I began to shape my diet increasingly around not just avoiding the junk, but incorporating the array of nutrient-dense foods our ancestors would have prized. To better help my patients since beginning clinical practice, I furthered my education, diving deep into literature and post-grad trainings which helped me to gain mastery over the hormonal characteristics of macronutrients, the broad arsenal of micronutrients, and ways to rehabilitate the gut and the microbiome. Over the years I’ve further expanded on this knowledge base to include the metabolic effects of lifestyle patterning concerning types of exercise, sleep quality, circadian rhythms, stress management and more.
Though I’ve taught nutrition classes to my patients before, it only recently occurred to me to share my own story of healthy weight loss, because to be honest, I still have a raw vulnerability about it. That teenager, afraid of judgment, is still inside of me begging to keep it a secret. I told this story to a patient the other day and looking at me, she didn’t believe it. By cloaking my own vulnerability perhaps I do my patients a disservice, because they think that health is something you’re born with, or not.
The truth is that in our current age, to be healthy is to go against all the odds. A research report issued this year from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy found that only 7% of American adults are metabolically healthy, as measured by blood pressure, blood sugar and lipids, degree of overweight and obesity, and presence of cardiovascular disease (such as heart attack and stroke).
Furthermore, matters have been growing steadily worse since the 90s, when I was in the throes of my own struggle with weight. In 1999, one out of three US adults had “optimal adiposity,” meaning two-thirds were overweight or obese. Two in five adults were diabetic or pre-diabetic. This was already a lot, no?
But check it out– in 2018, only one out of four US adults had “optimal adiposity”– meaning 75% of us are overweight or obese. And six out of ten were diabetic or pre-diabetic. That’s a solid majority of people in our country either with metabolic syndrome, or well on their way. And metabolic syndrome sets you up for much higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, liver disease, various types of cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s, and just way too many other degradations of health and quality of life. It basically paves the way to poor health outcomes across the board. Need we mention significantly higher mortality COVID? Yes indeed– it’s not mentioned enough.
The Tufts research also found vast disparities between demographic groups with different educational backgrounds, ethnicities and geographic distributions. If you’re from a poorer background, and/or a minority group, you’re even less likely to be metabolically healthy. I’m without delusion that my access to education, a healthier-than-average peer group, quality food and in adulthood, a middle-class income, made a huge difference in my ability to shift my diet for the better. If the only environment you know is the one that normalizes a hyper-processed diet, and there are no other role models in your circle, and if you either can’t afford good food or it’s not even available in your actual neighborhood, than you’re up against some pretty serious odds.
This is all to hammer home the point that metabolic health in today’s society is before anything, a product of our food environment. To be healthy is quite often to be counter-culture, a standout, an exception. I look around me and see the tremendous suffering that many others are going through because they never made it out of the woods, the way I did– those woods being the Standard American Diet (SAD) and the havoc it wreaks on our bodies and minds.
As a busy clinician who works with dozens of individuals each and every week, I know that there is complexity to everyone’s personal struggle to regain metabolic health. There is no one-size-fits-all approach or silver bullet. But there are certain broad truths and one of them is that we have to go against the grain of our contemporary food culture. It’s making most of us sick.
12/30/2022 12:35:55 pm
Grace this is such a wonderful article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking at you today, this is hard to believe. You are an inspiration to others.
12/30/2022 01:36:44 pm
I have learned some much from you over the years. Thank you for courageously sharing your story with us. Whether via written word or speech your guidance has always resonated in my heart and soul. You supported my insidious eczema condition through diet, supplements, acupuncture. I am really looking forward to joining your Metabolic Health presentation next week! Happy New Year!
12/30/2022 03:26:59 pm
Grace, thank you for sharing such an important message. I wish I could just give you a big hug right now. I have personally been battling metabolic syndrome for years, but according to my recent labs, I think I finally have it licked. Wishing you all the best in 2023. Happy New Year!
1/2/2023 05:49:49 am
Grace, Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable part of your past. You are a light and it is through such openness that you provide a glimpse into another direction. I thank you for helping me with your light in the nutritional area as it has led me away from a generational acceptance of ultra processed food and yes, lots of pizza too.
1/2/2023 08:35:38 am
Thank you for this enlightening piece. You inspire me in so many ways!
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